Brief History of British Hockey
By Stuart Roberts
Ice hockey has been played in this country since the early years of the 20th century; Britain was a founder member in 1908 of the world governing body, the IIHF. (International Ice Hockey Federation) The first game between Oxford and Cambridge was held on 16th March 1900 Oxford won 7-6 (Uni History) The sport first became prominent here in the 1930s with the opening of large indoor arenas in London at Wembley, Haringey and Earls Court (Empress Hall). Teams were staffed almost entirely by Canadian professionals, several of whom went on to compete in North America’s NHL (National Hockey League).
The 13 seasons either side of World War Two (1935-54) are often referred to as the sport’s golden era. There were two professional leagues, the English National League and the Scottish National League, which drew large crowds to arenas in London, Brighton, Nottingham and Scotland.
The men’s national team enjoyed their greatest success in 1936 when they upset the ice hockey world in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Bavaria by winning the Triple Crown of Olympic, World and European titles. Their five victories included a 2-1 defeat of Canada, the reigning world champions.
The two domestic leagues merged in 1954 into a British National League but rising wages and falling crowds caused it to fold in 1960. With no new rinks being built, the sport went into a decline. It only began to achieve wide popularity again in 1982 when the British League was re-formed with teams composed mostly of homegrown players and a strict limit (usually three) on imported professionals. The English Ice Hockey Association was formed in 1982 with around 60 teams this has now grown to over 370 across England and Wales
This is generally seen as the start of the game’s modern era.
Boosted by the largest rink building programme ever seen in this country and a multi-million pound sponsorship of the league by Heineken lager, the sport enjoyed its greatest popularity since the Fifties. The two-division (Heineken) British League, ran from 1983 to 1996 and the end-of-season (Heineken) British Championships were televised by BBC Grandstand and drew capacity crowds to Wembley Arena for 13 straight years.
This success, coupled with the promise of more big arenas like the ones in Sheffield (opened 1991) and Manchester (1995), prompted a revival of the professional game. The Superleague, which was formed in 1996, reverted to a heavy reliance on overseas players and although at first the crowds continued to increase, many clubs eventually found the league too expensive and it collapsed in 2003.
The Elite League, which was created from the surviving Superleague sides, still has a preponderance of foreign skaters. The English Premier League, which was formed in the late Eighties, continues to fly the flag for home-grown talent.
Meanwhile, the national men’s team have competed for the last 15 seasons in the second tier of the World Championships. Their low world ranking – 25th – is due to the team receiving minimal funding from inside the sport and none at all from the government, while international competition continues to strengthen.
Our thanks to Stuart Roberts for this article